Key & Peele ended its five-season run a little less than a year ago, and in the crazy political year since, their perspective has been noticeably lacking. But beyond commentary, the show was a relief — a space to be dazzled by pure comedy craftsmanship. When it was on the air, it’s hard to argue there were better written, better performed, or better produced sketches anywhere else on television than Key & Peele. The scripts were tight, the production was pitch perfect, and performers Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele could pull off anything, heightening a small premise or grounding an extravagant one equally effortlessly. With the show up for seven Emmy awards this year, including Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Vulture asked Key, who is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, to walk us through his favorite sketches of the show’s final season. He shares behind-the-scenes stories, the ideas behind certain sketches, and analysis of what makes each successful.
[What] I liked about this one is we did cross coverage. Every actor loves cross coverage because you never have to think about what you did technically, because you know they’ve got two or three angles on you at once. As a result, it was ridiculous the amount of improvisation we were doing. The sketch ended up getting completely rewritten on the day. In its original form it’s twice as long, where there’s a whole second half of the scene where Jordan is trying to impress me in the interview. And on the day we were like, “Do we need this part of the sketch?” It ended up being better as a riff-athon for me and Adam [Pally].
Another thing about this sketch is there was absolutely no reason for us to be in the ‘70s, but it does add an extra level. We always try to make sure our sketches have three levels of something going on. There’s the comedic game*, the look, maybe we’re doing a little bit of homage or parody. Always something so it’s not just, here are a bunch of regular guys in their regular jeans and shirts just doing a sketch. We don’t want to come across as oh so clever, as opposed to there being something special about each and every sketch. One thing that happened because we were in that clothing was I was inspired be to be way more misogynistic and weird to the secretary.
*In comedy circles, “game” is the idea, the bit, the core of the comedy that the sketch explores. The game is the comedy seed that sprouts and grows as they sketch heightens. It will be referred to again throughout this piece.
Peter Atencio, the director, really pulled out all the stops here. We shot three different airplane sketches in that same building. It was a soundstage dedicated to shooting on an airplane. Something our EP pointed out to me is that it looks like Jordan is controlling how the plane is moving with his mind. Which was never the intention. It was one of those lovely things that we discovered in the edit. Originally, the idea was that Jordan was going to be looking at me with a look of relaxation on his face, like, “I told you, sir.” Like, “Well, well, well, one more bites the dust.” But that supernatural quality is so systemic to our show. It’s almost like we don’t make things without that sensibility to it.
A lot of my favorite sketches are ones where Jordan and I get to one-up each other. It’s not arguing and screaming, it’s like, “Oh, is that what you’re going to do?” “Yes, as a matter of fact, that is what I’m going to do.” “Well okay, I’m just going to go over here and do this.” There’s a lot of that delicious tension, as opposed to arguing, which I don’t find as interesting. I am a very physical comedian and I didn’t have tons of opportunity to do that this season. Jordan is such a wordsmith, so it was a nice mixture of the two of them. It was here’s what Keegan loves to do, and here’s what Jordan loves to do. It’s the perfect Key & Peele sandwich.
This sketch is the perfect example of what happens when you get a room full of improvisers together. I don’t remember who had that idea, but I do remember it having that feeling of when somebody finally goes, “[Gasp] Oh, there’s the game.”
So Jordan’s goal is to find 12 different ways to say, “Okay.” The same way he and I both had to find eight different ways to say the word “nooice.” And then there’s the other game, which is me capitulating, line after line after line. It’s another example of us trying to layer: capitulation, interpretation, drag, and funny voices. The other thing I love about the sketch is it’s what I call a freight-train sketch, where you, the viewer, don’t have time to stop to laugh.
“Severed Head Showcase”
It’s a Key & Peele trademark to give the director, in this case Payman [Benz], the opportunity to have a lot of fun, to get their rocks off a bit, in genre. We really lean into a genre to see if we can actually surprise people with the game. It would take three times or four times of Jordan doing something with the head before you realize [what the game is]. You don’t know how he’s going to try to impress us next.
The other thing is, I’m giving a 21st-century reaction to a 20,000 B.C. behavior. And then you’ve got a flip-around: You’re laughing when I react to him. That’s another staple of Key & Peele: There is no Abbott and there is no Costello. We’re both Abbott and we’re both Costello.
“Old Timers Talk Drake”
Sketches like this, or the valets, are what Jordan and I call a “peas in a pod.” It’s two characters that share a point of view against the world. I love those. My favorite thing about that sketch was how it came to be. We were in Calgary shooting Fargo and a young man, probably 23 years old, biracial, came up to us and asked us what we were doing there, wondering why we would be in Alberta, Canada, of all places. And then very quickly, in a very casual mumbly way, he said, “You guys like [mumbling, so it sounds like “drink”] Drake?” Both Jordan and I, in that moment, looked at him, and we looked at our drinks, and then we looked back at him, and I think Jordan said, “No, we’re good man, but thanks.” He giggled and said, “No, Drake. Drake!” And I went, “Drake? Oh, Drake! The recording artist.” I’m older than Jordan, but it might have been one of the first times he has experienced feeling old. So then we were sitting around, making fun of it, thinking of all the words we can think of that will rhyme with Drake. And goddammit we really loved it. And then the fact that the old timers are so indignant because they’re embarrassed. I love that, their emotional state being flipped so fast. It’s a very human thing of trying to embarrass you because I get defensive when I’m embarrassed.
“Game of Thrones Recap”
We’re both Game of Thrones freaks. On Key & Peele, whenever we have a sketch where we’re walking into the scene, or there’s a little preamble before we start the scene, we’re always talking about Game of Thrones. So the best thing is when we met [creators of the Game of Thrones TV show] [David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss, they were like, “Oh my God, the Dinkles!” And Peter [Dinklage] and I are friends and he’ll text me sometimes, “It is I, the Dinkles.” He calls himself the Dinkles! That’s pretty much the best thing about this sketch is that, Majeed and Duke’s — that’s the valets’ names — nickname for him stuck.
This sketch is one I like to call a “double trouble.” It’s a locked-off peas in a pod. Which is that they’re both on the same side and the cameras are fixed. They care and love the same things and we get to do whatever we want in the moment because we are catching it from two or three angles at once. It’s my dream come true. It’s the closest thing to theater.
“Gremlins 2 Brainstorm”
Historically, that sketch was written about seven years ago. Jordan did it with the majority of the actors that you see in the sketch, they all have a group at UCB called “The Midnight Show,” and he wrote that sketch and performed it with them then. It’s a tour de force for Jordan. Jordan is so good at organically, and through character, creating a catchphrase. “It’s in the movie!” The catchphrase is actually the character doing something — he’s encouraging people — so it wasn’t like it was written in a vacuum. The other thing I love about the sketch is I love wardrobe, and this is a homage to Hollywood from Mannequin 2.
This is a perfect marriage of everything. The production design, the costumes, the song, the lyrics, the comedy, everything just fell in the pocket perfectly. It’s every single thing at once. I don’t remember exactly how it was built, but Rebecca Drysdale wrote the sketch with Jordan, and they grew up doing musical theater together. She’s also the person who wrote the Les Mis sketch. She had been doing some kind of research on her own about words. Like, “Why is it called ‘booty?’” It didn’t come to the pitch table fully formed, but she definitely had an idea about how she wanted to go about it.
“Neil deGrasse Tyson”
One of the few runners [sketches that are broken down and run throughout an episode] ever done in the show. And also just bravo to Jordan for learning all of that dialogue, because they were all one-shots. It was a lot of fun — as an acting exercise, for me — to try to maintain focus on him and be as incredulous and as puzzled as I needed to be in the moment. Also, it’s such a black nerd, Key & Peele thing to do: “Let’s write a sketch about Neil deGrasse Tyson. We’re blerds. Let’s write a sketch about another blerd.” By the way, I’m pretty sure I met her, and Neil’s wife is white. Which is not surprising. It’s not surprising for me to have white wife or a white girlfriend, it’s not surprising for Jordan to have a white wife or white girlfriend, and I don’t think it’s surprising at all for Neil deGrasse Tyson to have a white wife or girlfriend [laughs].”
This one is just a really good biracial observation, a good blerd observation, a good code-switching observation. It’s got all those ingredients. It’s one of those sketches where you were think, Oh, yeah, people do do that. It’s also very true to our experience coming up in comedy. There’s an added little bit of commentary in the improv beat, which is like, “Hey, we have to have a black guy in the group, so we can do black jokes!” There’s that observation. And I don’t think it was even one of us that brought it up, because all of us are improvisers. There’s a truthfulness to it that it’s partially autobiographical, if not wholly autobiographical.
This was the last sketch on the show, and we wrote it almost totally as a room, with people just kind of walking around the office [singing], “I never know what to do in Negrotown.” It’s like an Uncle Remus, Song of the South piece that’s got some real juxtaposition juice behind it. It’s all about freedom, but we’re gonna fit it in this old style.
“Negrotown” does everything. It has nice layers, it makes a point, there’s a big dance number, the colors are great, the costumes are wonderful, the dancing is awesome, the lyrics are clever. Everything falls into place. That’s important whether everybody in the sketch is black or everybody in the sketch is Hispanic or everybody in the sketch is Asian. It doesn’t matter. If it’s not funny, it’s not funny. It was an opportunity to really kick it up a notch.
It’s always comedy first, and we felt that the way these lyrics were written and the way the music was, the comedy really, really worked, and if you were to ask Jordan, he would say the same thing. It’s comedy first [and] socioeconomic, racial, cultural second. Those are the things that are in our life that we think about every day, but we don’t really think about trying to make a point. The point comes out of our writers being mixed race, white, Jewish, gay, women, black, writing from their experience, which may not be a part of the mainstream experience. It’s why people in certain parts of the country that I’m calling a “mainstream experience” go, “What is this mysterious, exotic thing I’m watching?” It’s not mysterious and exotic for Jordan and me, and where we are from.
One of our executive producers Ian Roberts said to me a couple times during this entire process was, “Just make what makes you laugh and the people who want it, the people who dig it, the people who want to see it — they’ll come.” We wanted to write the best possible comedy — the most new, fresh comedy we could. So at the very end, we were showing our playground where we’ve been playing in for four years.